NORFOLK, VA.- The Chrysler Museum of Art
recently acquired a rare daguerreotype attributed to James Presley Ball, an African American, Virginia-born artist. The small, silver-coated plate depicts The Greenbrier, a historic resort in what is now West Virginia. It is possibly the earliest photographic image of the property and one of just two known daguerreotypes that illustrate the resort.
Ball was among only a few known African American daguerreotypists working at the time. The Museum purchase of his work directly aligns with the Chryslers collecting priorities. As we continue to grow our collection, we aim to build diversity in our holdings by adding photographs by people of color, women and artists working in Virginia. We also strive to give special attention to objects that reflect on the history of the medium, said Seth Feman, Ph.D., the Chrysler Museums Deputy Director for Art & Interpretation and Curator of Photography. This extraordinary object, in addition to its captivating image, achieves many of these goals at once.
Numbering more than 6,000 works, the photography collection represents about 20% of the Chryslers holdings and is the Museums fastest-growing collecting area. Just last year, the institution acquired more than 500 photographs, most of which were generous donations. The daguerreotype of The Greenbrier is one of the most significant photographic objects the Chrysler collected over the past five years. Daguerreotypes by J.P. Ball rarely appear on the market, and this ones early date and tie to Virginia through the artist and subject make it an important addition to our collection, Feman said.
Ball was born free in Frederick County in 1825 and learned to make daguerreotypes in 1845 from John B. Bailey, also an African American artist. During the same year, Ball made his image of The Greenbrier. The fashionable vacation spot was known for the curative effects of its natural hot springs. It was designed to house visitors in cabins that were assembled in rows along the hillsides, giving the resort a rustic charm. When Ball made his image from a nearby hilltop, he included these recognizable features.
Soon after capturing the image, Ball opened a studio in Cincinnati. He worked in Pittsburgh and Richmond before returning to Cincinnati. In 1855, he collaborated with a group of African American artists to create a monumental antislavery work. Their 2,400-square-yard panorama told the history of slavery and its place in contemporary American life. Ball also addressed race relations in everyday ways by welcoming integrated and noteworthy clientele to his studio. Sitters included abolitionist Frederick Douglass, opera singer Jenny Lind and numerous Union Army soldiers. Ball also became active in politics. When he settled in Helena, Montana Territory in 1871, he became a delegate to a civil rights convention and later ran for several public offices.
Since reopening in 2014 after a renovation and expansion, the Chrysler Museum has revived its photography program with new acquisitions as well as an eclectic mix of exhibitions, lectures and tours. The Museum strives to present notable figures from the history of photography and explore different aspects of the medium. New additions to the collection like Balls daguerreotype reflect the breadth and diversity of the medium, suggesting the fascinating ways photography shapes how we remember the past, see the present and imagine the future.